Limitations Of Case Study Methodology

Published in Method, Research Students by Mark Murphy on May 24, 2014

(c) Joe Duty

There should be no doubt that with case studies what you gain in depth you lose in breadth – this is the unavoidable compromise that needs to be understood from the beginning of the research process. So this is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage as one aspect cancels out the benefits/drawbacks of the other – there are other benefits and drawbacks that need attention however …

Benefits

  • Their flexibility: case studies are popular for a number of reasons, one being that they can be conducted at various points in the research process. Researchers are known to favour them as a way to develop ideas for more extensive research in the future – pilot studies often take the form of case studies. They are also effective conduits for a broad range of research methods; in that sense they are non-prejudicial against any particular type of research – focus groups are just as welcome in case study research as are questionnaires or participant observation.
  • Capturing reality: One of their key benefits is their ability to capture what Hodkinson and Hodkinson call ‘lived reality’ (2001: 3). As they put it, case studies have the potential, when applied successfully, to ‘retain more of the “noise” of real life than many other types of research’ (Hodkinson and Hodkinson, 2001: 3). The importance of ‘noise’ and its place in research is especially important in contexts such as education, for example in schools where background noise is unavoidable. Educational contexts are always complex, and as a result it is difficult to exclude other unwanted variables, ‘some of which may only have real significance for one of their students’ (Hodkinson and Hodkinson, 2001, 4).

Drawbacks

  • The challenge of generality: At the same time, given their specificity, care needs to be taken when attempting to generalise from the findings. While there’s no inherent flaw in case study design that precludes its broader application, it is preferable that researchers choose their case study sites carefully, while also basing their analysis within existing research findings that have been generated via other research designs. No design is infallible but so often has the claim against case studies been made, that some of the criticism (unwarranted and unfair in many cases) has stuck.
  • Suspicion of amateurism: Less partisan researchers might wonder whether the case study offers the time and finance-strapped researcher a convenient and pragmatic source of data, providing findings and recommendations that, given the nature of case studies, can neither be confirmed nor denied, in terms of utility or veracity. Who is to say that case studies offer anything more than a story to tell, and nothing more than that?
  • But alongside this suspicion is another more insiduous one – a notion that ‘stories’ are not what social science research is about. This can be a concern for those who favour  case study research, as the political consequences can be hard to ignore. That said, so much research is based either on peoples’ lives or the impact of other issues (poverty, institutional policy) on their lives, so the stories of what actually occurs in their lives or in professional environments tend to be an invaluable source of evidence. The fact is that stories (individual, collective, institutional) have a vital role to play in the world of research. And to play the specific v. general card against case study design suggests a tendency towards forms of research fundamentalism as opposed to any kind of rational and objective take on case study’s strengths and limitations.
  • Preciousness: Having said that, researchers should not fall into the trap (surprising how often this happens) of assuming that case study data speaks for itself – rarely is this ever the case, an assumption that is as patronising to research subjects as it is false. The role of the researcher is both to describe social phenomena and also to explain – i.e., interpret. Without interpretation the research findings lack meaningful presentation – they present themselves as fact when of course the reality of ‘facts’ is one of the reasons why such research is carried out.
  • Conflation of political/research objectives: Another trap that case study researchers sometimes fall into is presenting research findings as if they were self-evidently true, as if the stories were beyond criticism. This is often accompanied by a vague attachment to the notion that research is a political process – one that is performed as a form of liberation against for example policies that seek to ignore the stories of those who ‘suffer’ at the hands of overbearing political or economic imperatives. Case study design should not be viewed as a mechanism for providing a ‘local’ bulwark against the ‘global’ – bur rather as a mechanism for checking the veracity of universalist claims (at least one of its objectives). The valorisation of particularism can only get you so far in social research.
[This post is adapted from material in ‘Research and Education’ (Curtis, Murphy and Shields, Routledge 2014), pp. 80-82].

Reference: Hodkinson, P. and H. Hodkinson (2001). The strengths and limitations of case study research.Paper presented to the Learning and Skills Development Agency conference, Making an impact on policy and practice, Cambridge, 5-7 December 2001, downloaded from http://education.exeter.ac.uk/tlc/docs/publications/LE_PH_PUB_05.12.01.rtf.26.01.2013

About

Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

http://dirty-looks.com

     Case Study Method

This module describes the case study method of descriptive research and its uses.

Learning Objectives:

  • Define case study research.
  • List reasons researchers use the case study method
  • Explain the how data is recorded when using the case study method.
  • Describe the benefits and limitations of using the case study method.

Case study research refers to an in-depth, detailed study of an individual or a small group of individuals.  Such studies are typically qualitative in nature, resulting in a narrative description of behavior or experience.  Case study research is not used to determine cause and effect, nor is it used to discover generalizable truths or make predictions. Rather, the emphasis in case study research is placed on exploration and description of a phenomenon.   The main characteristics of case study research are that it is narrowly focused, provides a high level of detail, and is able to combine both objective and subjective data to achieve an in-depth understanding.

Quantitative studies commonly ask questions of who, what, where, how much and how many.  Case studies, on the other hand, are used to answer questions of how or why.  They are commonly used to collect in-depth data in a natural setting where the researcher has little or no control over the events and there is a real life context. Often times, the goal of a case study is provide information that may research in the formation of a hypothesis for future research.   Case studies are commonly used in social science research and educational settings.  For example, case studies may be used to study psychological problems such as the development of a child raised by a single, deaf parent or the effects on a child who had been isolated, abused and neglected until the age of 12 years old.  Case studies could also be used in an educational setting to explore the development of writing skills in a small group of high school freshmen taking a creative writing class.

There are several types of case study methods.  The method selected depends upon the nature of the question being asked and the goals of the researcher.  Following is a list of the different types of case studies:

  • Illustrative – This type of method is used to “illustrate” or describe an event or situation in such a way that people can become more familiar with the topic in question and perhaps become acquainted with the terminology associated with the topic.
  • Exploratory – This method is a condensed case study and the purpose is to gather basic, initial data that could be used to identify a particular question for a larger study. This study is not designed to produce detailed data from which any conclusions could be drawn.  It is simply exploratory in nature.
  • Cumulative – The cumulative method is designed to pull together information for several events/situations and aggregate it in such a way that it allows for greater generalization. It has the advantage of saving time and money by not creating new and repetitive studies.
  • Critical Instance – These studies are used to examine situations of unique interest or to challenge a universal or generalized belief. Such studies are not to create new generalizations. Rather, several situations or events may be examined to raise questions or challenge previously held assertions.

Once the question has been identified and the basic type of case study method has been selected, the researcher will need to begin designing their case study approach.  In order to obtain a full and detailed picture of the participant or small group, the researcher can use a variety of approaches and methods to collect data.  These methods may include interviews, field studies, protocol or transcript analyses, direct participant observations, a review of documents and archived records, and an exploration of artifacts.  Researchers may choose to use one of these methods to collect data (single method approach) or they may use several methods (multi-modal approach). 

After the researcher has determined the data collection methods and what type of data will be used and recorded in the study, he or she will need to decide upon a strategy for analyzing the data.  Case study researchers typically interpret their data either holistically or through coding procedures.  A holistic approach reviews all of the data as a whole and attempts to draw conclusions based on the data in its entirety. This is an appropriate approach when the question being studied is more general in nature and the data provides an overview.  Sometimes, it may be more useful to break the data into smaller pieces.  This usually involves searching the data to identify and categorize specific actions or characteristics. These categories can be assigned a numeric code that allows the data to be analyzed using statistical, quantitative methods.

Regardless of the type of case study, data collection method or data analysis method, all case studies have advantages and disadvantages.  The following list discusses the potential benefits and limitations associated with using case study research methods:

Advantages:

  • Case studies are more flexible than many other types of research and allow the researcher to discover and explore as the research develops.
  • Case studies emphasize in-depth content. The researcher is able to delve deep and use a variety of data sources to get a complete picture.
  • The data is collected in a natural setting and context.
  • Often leads to the creation of new hypotheses that can be tested later.
  • Case studies often shed new light on an established theory that results in further exploration.
  • Researchers are able to study and analyze situations, events and behaviors that could be created in a laboratory setting.

Disadvantages:

  • The uniqueness of the data usually means that it is not able to be replicated.
  • Case studies have some level of subjectivity and researcher bias may be a problem.
  • Because of the in-depth nature of the data, it is not possible to conduct the research on a large scale.
  • There are concerns about the reliability, validity and generalizability of the results.

The Resource Links on this page provide a more comprehensive and detailed discussion regarding the types of case study methods, data collection methods and data analysis methods.  In summary, the following video, Case Study, reviews the case study methodology and discusses several types of case study methods.

 Suggested Readings:

  • Bernard, H. R., & Bernard, H. R. (2012). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Sage.
  • Burt, C. (1922). Research in education.
  • Creswell, J. W. (2013). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage publications.
  • Gomm, R., Hammersley, M., & Foster, P. (Eds.). (2000). Case study method: Key issues, key texts. Sage.
  • Knupfer, N. N., & McLellan, H. (1996). Descriptive research methodologies. Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, 1196-1212.
  • Mertens, D. M. (1998). Research methods in education and psychology: Integrating diversity with quantitative & qualitative approaches.
  • Neuman, W. L., & Neuman, W. L. (2006). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches.
  • Rosenthal, R., & Rosnow, R. L. (1991). Essentials of behavioral research: Methods and data analysis. McGraw-Hill Humanities Social.
  • Soy, S. (2015). The case study as a research method.
  • Stake, R. E. (1978). The case study method in social inquiry. Educational researcher, 7(2), 5-8.
  • Svensson, L. (1984). Three Approaches to Descriptive Research.

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